Many cuts above

Lisa Burgess-Riggins flies in from San Francisco because Panache does it better.
Lisa Burgess-Riggins flies in from San Francisco because Panache does it better.
Posted: August 26, 2014

WHITE GUYS who can cornrow black women's hair?

In all the hundreds of hours I've spent in beauty salons all around the country, I've never seen anyone but a black stylist perform this traditional braiding technique.

But at Panache Hair Design, the white, male stylists have been doing it for years. Co-owner Frank Altomare pretty much taught himself back in the 1980s by practicing on his own hair. These days, not only can he cornrow black hair, but he also does relaxers and sew-in weaved styles that would make even Beyonce do a double take.

Panache may be owned and operated by a couple of white male hair stylists, but it's black hair central in Center City. The vast majority of the upscale salon's clients are African-American females.

In 2014, that shouldn't be unusual, but let's be real.

Things have improved dramatically, but black women still sometimes get the runaround from majority-owned salons.

I speak from experience. Not that long ago, I decided to try one of those newfangled drop-in places. As I waited, not one but two white stylists came and took a look at me before deciding to pass. Maybe it was the glass of wine they handed me when I walked in, but I didn't get irked. I waited patiently until a third stylist came over and announced that she would be the one doing my hair that night.

On the day I visited Panache last week, a steady stream of mainly professional women came in, including a black businesswoman who had flown in all the way from San Francisco to have her hair done at the salon, located on JFK Boulevard near 20th Street.

"I tried to find places there but none of them were remotely like my experiences here," explained Lisa Burgess-Riggins, who moved from Philly to Northern California six years ago. "I tried a couple of places but I never left happy."

She looked pretty happy last week after getting her thick mane cut into a shiny bob that bounced with every step she took. Her hairdo was conservative but still had a bit of an edge to it.

"I've never been to a hairdresser that has this kind of skill," pointed out Yvonne Roberts, a lobbyist with a sassy hairdo who had stopped by for her weekly appointment.

"I've been ridiculed: 'How can you be so black and not support black salons?' '' Roberts added. ''[People say], 'Oh, you go to a white salon. How is it that white people can do your hair?' I'm living proof that they do know."

Getting to the root of things

Altomare grew up on a farm in Berlin, N.J. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with his life until the day his mother returned home from a salon where she'd gone to get prepped for an upcoming wedding and her hair was a disaster.

"When she came in, I said, 'I can do better than that,' " he recalled. "She said, 'Get a comb and do something.' That's basically how I got introduced."

After graduating from Edgewood High School, in 1969, he went to a now-defunct beauty school and worked at various salons. Meanwhile, co-owner John Toner was attending Frankford High School in the Northeast, and trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life. Eventually, he enrolled at Gordon Phillips Beauty School and set about becoming a hairstylist.

Their paths crossed sometime in the 1970s - neither remembers the year - when both were working at Command Performance Styling Salon, in the Gallery. Rivalry turned to friendship and then to love.

"What happened over time, we had more and more African-American women coming in because they were more willing to wait than women with other textures because there weren't that many other good alternatives in terms of getting good hair care," Toner said. "Gradually, the clientele became more and more African-American women."

Initially, clients more accustomed to stylists of their same racial background didn't trust them to apply chemical straighteners to relax the curl in their hair or to cut it into popular styles of the day, such as the multilayered snatchback.

"They would tell me right out, 'You don't know what you're doing with my hair,' " Altomare recalled.

Toner admitted: "It definitely was a learning curve. African-American hair wasn't really taught well in the schools."

As their skills grew, so did their customer base. Women appreciated their signature soft, professional looks. Toner and Altomare left Command Performance during the late 1970s and went to work for several Center City salons, including the now-closed Zagobi's, before finally deciding to open their own salon in 1984.

They got loans from family. Used credit cards. They painted the salon themselves. The first Panache was on 19th Street near Sansom. They were there for 15 years before moving to 15th and Walnut streets. Two years ago, they moved to their current location on JFK Boulevard. It's a bright, airy space, with lots of windows.

Next month, Toner and Altomare will celebrate 30 years of being in business with a monthlong commemoration. They've got a whole lot to celebrate.

"The fact that these men have been in business for three decades doing black hair is . . . really remarkable," said Ayana D. Byrd, co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. "I think it's because they come from a place of respect in terms of hair. They don't treat you like your hair is some sort of foreign thing.

"Sometimes you walk into a salon and they look at you like, 'What am I supposed to do with that?' " added Byrd, who has been a Panache customer. "More salons are starting to try to figure out how to get more black women in. They need to follow their business example."


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

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